FREDERICTON – A $200-million wind farm in northern New Brunswick is frozen solid, cutting off a potential supply of renewable energy for NB Power.
The 25-kilometre stretch of wind turbines, located 70 kilometres northwest of Bathurst, has been completely shut down for several weeks due to heavy ice covering their blades.
GDF SUEZ Energy, the company that owns and operates the site, is working to return the windmills to working order, a spokesperson says.
“We can’t control the weather,” Julie Vitek said in an interview from company headquarters in Houston, Texas.
“We’re looking to see if we can cope with it more effectively, through the testing of a couple of techniques.”
She says the conditions in northern New Brunswick have wreaked havoc on the wind farm this winter.
“For us, cold and dry weather is good and that’s what’s typical in the region. Cold and wet weather can be a problem without any warmer days to prompt thawing, which has been the case this year.
“This weather pattern has been particularly challenging.”
Wintery conditions also temporarily shut down the site last winter, just months after its completion. Some or all of the turbines were offline for several days, with “particularly severe icing” blamed that year.
The accumulated ice alters the aerodynamics of the blades, rendering them ineffective as airfoils. The added weight further immobilizes the structures.
Vitek says workers are trying to find a way to prevent ice build up from occurring again in the future. The shut down has not had any effect on employment at the site, which provides 12 permanent jobs.
In February 2008, Suez was awarded a contract to build a 33-turbine wind farm at Caribou Mountain. NB Power signed a 20-year power purchase agreement for its 99 megawatts of power capacity, which went online in November 2009.
At the time, the project was praised for bringing NB Power to its goal of having 400 megawatts of wind power capacity by 2010. The facility has enough capacity to power about 19,000 homes.
Melissa Morton, a spokesperson for the utility, says the contract isn’t based on power delivered during a specific period, but rather on an annual basis.
“Although there may be periods when production is down from what would be expected, there are also periods when production is above what would be expected,” she says.
“We only pay for the energy that actually goes on our transmission system.”
But with energy market prices changing constantly, she says there’s no way to know if NB Power is paying more or less for replacement power.
“It can be more expensive. It can also be cheaper,” she says, but fluctuations in production at other sites can make up the difference.
“Our hopes is that it will balance out over the 12-month period and, historically, that has been the case.”
Despite running into problems in consecutive winters, Morton says NB Power doesn’t have concerns about the reliability of the supply from the Caribou Mountain site.
Suez’s website states its wind farms on average produce about 35 per cent of their capacity on an annual basis, accounting for daily and seasonal fluctuations in wind patterns. David Coon, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, says winter tends to bring higher winds to the province, which would push wind farms to produce more power.
He says the problems at Caribou Mountain are confusing, as other projects in cold climates haven’t had similar ice issues.
“I don’t know why, because there’s a lot more wind (farms) to north of us in Quebec, so I don’t know why in particular they’re having trouble,” he says.
“When there’s thousands of megawatts operating in Quebec, up in the Gaspe and the north shore, I don’t know why.”
NB Power also has contracts to buy power from other wind facilities in the region.
A TransAlta-owned wind farm, located south of Moncton at Kent Hills, consists of 32 turbines. An additional 18 turbines are being constructed at the site, which will make it the largest wind farm in Atlantic Canada.
NB Power also has power-purchase agreements with the Acciona wind project in Lamèque and another Suez farm on Prince Edward Island.
Suez operates a second wind farm on the Island, as well as owning facilities in Central and South America and across Europe.
FREDERICTON – The temporary stoppage of a New Brunswick wind farm comes as the province’s energy commission is formulating a long-term plan for the future of the sector.
Co-chairmen Jeannot Volpé and Bill Thompson have approached wind power cautiously, suggesting it’s not a silver bullet that will address all energy challenges, despite repeated appeals from around the province to invest in green energy.
Renewable energy advocates say the experiences at Caribou Mountain, which has had weather-related problems both winters it’s been in operation, aren’t a sign that wind power is unreliable and that it still has a key place in New Brunswick’s energy landscape.
Jean-Marie Pelletier, vice-president of the Acadia Renewable Energy Co-op, says Caribou Mountain’s issues are specific to that project.
“Your site location is critical,” he says.
“By putting it high up in the mountains, you get a lot more frosting in that region.”
The co-op wants to construct its own 12-megawatt wind farm on the Acadian Peninsula.
“We have definitely learned from the Bathurst situation for our project,” he says.
“If you look at the project in Lamèque, that one is not suffering from any of those inconveniences because it’s lower and there’s less frosting. You haven’t heard (of ice problems) in the Sussex project. They’re doing well.”
While Volpé and Thompson haven’t dismissed wind power outright, they have raised the point that wind power currently costs about twice what New Brunswick can pay to buy energy on the open market, largely from American natural gas sources.
“The three main elements that have been identified to us within the energy world are the need to have energy prices that are competitive, the need to work to reduce or minimize or eliminate environmental impacts, while still growing our economy,” Thompson says.
“All three are key elements of a sustainable environment.”
The chairmen also point to the recent decline in power demand in the province, which they say could remove the need for new local generation assets altogether.
David Coon, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, says wind has been NB Power’s main option so far when trying to meet its targets for using more renewable energy.
He says the problems at Caribou Mountain aren’t an indictment of wind power, they simply highlight the need for more farms in different locations to balance out the inherent fluctuations that come with the green energy source.
“You’ve got one wind farm that, for a handful of weeks, is stuck because of weather conditions,” he says.
He says the commission chairmen are placing too much emphasis on other factors, such as profitability, rather than considering the considering the cost of delaying renewable development.
“They’re taking a very short-term view. They should be looking at it in terms of how do we need to transform our energy system for the future? That means going renewable. We need to think of all renewable, not simply wind. For some reason, we’ve got a huge potential for wind in New Brunswick, which we should be harnessing, but we should be putting in place a diversity of renewable at the same time.”
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